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Going Their Own Way : Not All Athletes Take Traditional Path From Preps to College

Combination: Exposure in club and high school play pays off for Brethren Christian's MacDonald.

January 27, 1998|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brethren Christian's Rachael MacDonald began playing club basketball the summer after her freshman year. She was 6-foot-1 and not nearly at the same skill level as her club mates, who included two of Orange County's best players, Esperanza's Leah Combs and Ocean View's Anna Lembke.

Now, MacDonald is 6-3 and has a financial aid package that will provide her an Ivy League education at Brown. All because of basketball--a lot of it--and a 4.04 grade-point average.

"I don't think the improvement would have been as great for me if I hadn't played club," said MacDonald, 17. "For me personally, my whole goal of playing with a club team was to be seen by colleges and so that I could bring my high school team up a level as well."

MacDonald's is a case in which high school and club ball complemented her game and college aspirations.

She has gained confidence playing for the Warriors, where the burden of leading the team has fallen on her. She benefited from participating in club basketball, first for Southern California Basketball Club and most recently with the first-year California Academy, by playing alongside players whose skill forced her to compete at a higher level or get left behind. She got mentally tougher because she had to.

She is averaging 17.2 points and 10.3 rebounds for Brethren Christian (12-7).

But there's not always an affinity between club and high school programs. Club basketball does not run concurrently with high school basketball, but athletes playing a different club sport--volleyball, for example--might be asked to choose between a club tournament or a high school basketball game.

"The athlete has to be very careful who they're playing for and why they're playing," Brethren Christian Coach Kim Harris said. "The competition level and exposure is a given. The negatives are that the player isn't necessarily put in the care of someone interested in the athlete's best interests but is more interested in stroking their own ego. I've seen this in boys' and girls' sports, not just basketball. The focus is to play club at the expense of high school."

MacDonald's club coach, former Newport Harbor coach Shannon Jakosky, doesn't disagree. "I've seen two main categories of coaches--the one who is profit-motivated, and there are fathers who step in for periods of time and get involved via their daughters. In my opinion, quality of coaching and program has not been as well evaluated by parents as I think it should be."

After Brethren Christian lost in the Southern Section Division IV-A semifinals on March 1, MacDonald had her first practice with California Academy in mid-March and competed in two spring tournaments in April during the 10-day viewing period for NCAA coaches. She played two weekend AAU qualifying tournaments in May.

During another viewing period in July, MacDonald played seven games in three days in Seattle; six games in four days in Oregon City, Ore.; seven games in five days in Lubbock, Texas; five games in three days in San Diego. She also played in a high school tournament there that preceded the club tournament. Hundreds of college coaches watch those tournaments.

When there were conflicts with her high school team over the summer, she chose club. "It caused quite a bit of heartache sometimes," MacDonald said, "but in the long run, it was worth making that difficult decision."

Harris doesn't deny the club involvement's impact on MacDonald and appreciates its advantages, but shudders at the de-emphasizing of high school athletics in other sports and that athletes can ignore high school competition.

"Fortunately, basketball is not at that place yet," said Harris, whose father, Jim, coaches at Ocean View and has more than 350 victories in 20 years. "Dad's opinion is that basketball won't go that way because the majority of quality coaching is still at the high school level."

There were no club games for MacDonald in August, and four games in two days in late September with her club team. MacDonald played about 10 months and admitted she had nagging injuries that sometimes never completely healed. She also said she missed her family while her mother was undergoing surgery and radiation treatment for breast cancer, but relished basketball as "a chance to get away from the reality of that situation."

Another reality, says Jakosky: "[MacDonald] has a great high school coach, but they're a small school [580 enrollment] and play in a smaller division. Realistically, the level of competition would not be the same as club, which not only allowed her to get on the radar, but provided the competition she needed to prepare for the next level and show college coaches she could compete at that level. Realistically, Brown [in Rhode Island] probably wouldn't have ever known about her."

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